CASE CLOSED … what really happened in the 2001 anthrax attacks?

Posts Tagged ‘USDA Ames anthrax’

* Dr. Paul Keim answers questions about the anthrax investigation, some from CASE CLOSED blog participants

Posted by DXer on July 8, 2009

why the FBI failed to solve the 2001 anthrax caseCASE CLOSED

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* VIDEO – introducing CASE CLOSED

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Dr. Paul Keim answers questions

about the anthrax investigation,

some from CASE CLOSED blog participants

KeimPaul Keim, Ph.D., is a Regents Professor of Biology at Northern Arizona University and the Division Director of Pathogen Genomics at the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen). Keim serves on the Scientific Working Group for Microbial Forensics (FBI) and the National Science Advisory Board for Biodefense to advise the U.S. government on issues of science and policy.

On July 6, 2009, Paul Keim answered selected viewer questions about the anthrax letter attacks and microbial forensics in general. Excerpts from these Q & A follow; the entire Q & A is found in the comment below.

Q: What are the limitations of using microbial forensics for attribution purposes? Are policymakers fully aware of these limitations? Jonathan B. Tucker, Washington, D.C.

A: … “The laboratory Ames strain can be precisely identified and differentiated from all other types of Bacillus anthracis, including those very close relatives isolated from the same geographic region of Texas.” This is a long ways from concluding that letter spores came from USAMRIID, but it is a start and eliminates a lot of possibilities. “Exclusion” due to a lack of a match is one of the most powerful conclusions that can be drawn in DNA fingerprinting analysis. In the Amerithrax case, the scientific evidence (morph typing) tying the letter spores to the RMR-1029 appears strong. The FBI repository of Ames cultures was extensive, and only cultures derived from RMR1029 or that culture itself have all four morphs. While this scientific conclusion excludes a very large number of possible perpetrators, it still doesn’t directly attribute the crime to an individual. I understand that there was more than one person with access to RMR-1029 spore preparation. I don’t know how many individuals had access, and I can only speculate that it could have been quite a few (10? 50? 100?). This limitation is well understood by the scientists involved but may or may not be understood by the public or policymakers.

Q: Did the FBI or U.S. Department of Justice consult with any genetics expert when they were asked in October 2001 whether it was okay for the [B. anthracis strains held at] Iowa State University and USDA Ames (at the strip mall) to be destroyed? Ross Getman, Syracuse, New York

A: I was not consulted nor am I familiar with the actual steps that lead to the destruction of these materials. During that time period (late 2001), I was doubtlessly the most engaged microbial geneticist working with the FBI. If I wasn’t consulted, then probably none others were either. Additional Commentary:  It is hard to understand why this destruction was done and why it was allowed to occur. Clearly someone in Iowa panicked at being in the media bright lights and wanted to get rid of the material. If this was really authorized by the FBI, who that authority was has not been released, to my knowledge. If the investigation had eventually lead back to Iowa, this would have been viewed as destruction of evidence and obstruction of justice. Now that would have been a public relations nightmare!

The following are several of the many questions proposed at my CASE CLOSED blog, where a vibrant discussion of issues related to the anthrax investigation is active every day. Lew Weinstein, Collioure, France:

Q1: Did the 1,070 samples examined by the morphotype analysis accurately reflect the actual number of anthrax samples held in the U.S. in the 2001 timeframe?

A: This would not be representative of all the Bacillus anthracis samples, but rather Ames strain stocks. I don’t know how many B. anthracis cultures existed in the U.S. in 2001, but many more than this. The Ames strain is only one of many different identifiable strains.

Q2: Did the process of self-submission of anthrax samples by labs and individuals (per the FBI methodology) result in a reliable representation of the Ames samples that may or may not have existed prior to 2001?

A:  Presumably, the 1,070 collection represents all the Ames cultures in the U.S. plus some from around the world. First, the Department of Justice subpoenaed all the U.S. anthrax labs for our inventory records with special attention to the Ames strain cultures. Next, the DOJ subpoenaed all U.S. laboratories that had the Ames strain to provide a sampling (a portion) of their Ames cultures. For example, my lab had only seven different Ames stocks, which we sampled and sent in duplicate to the FBI.

Q3: Did the FBI use any type of proficiency testing for their genetic analysis?

A: Definitely yes. Extensive proficiency testing was performed both prior to and during the genetic analysis at Northern Arizona University. The initial determination from the first Florida sample was done using normal research controls and standards, but soon afterwards very rigorous forensic-level protocols were implemented. There was no time for proficiency testing for the first analysis on the Robert Stevens isolate, as we had only a few hours notification. Immediately afterwards, the FBI forensic scientists began to review our procedures and help us to institute forensic-level operating protocols, including proficiency testing. Once these were in place, original analyses were repeated with the same result.

Note that there were no forensic standards for microbes and that we had to adapt the ones developed for human DNA testing to our new anthrax tests. This is a topic of great debate as to what the standards should be for a new technology.

Q4: Was the Bacillus subtilis contaminant found in the first batch of letters genetically identical to any forensic evidence collected from any lab? Also, was that contaminant tested against strains from Dugway Proving Grounds?

A: Disclaimer: My lab did not work on the B. subtilis contaminant, so what I am relating is secondhand knowledge. However, it is based upon my conversations with government experts and my participation in the press conferences and the public ASM symposium. Details of the contaminant were discussed in these forums. Background: The question refers to the non-hemolytic (B. anthracis is hemolytic) bacterial contaminant found in some of the letters. It proved to be a spore forming Bacillus subtilis bacterium. As the name implies, this is somewhat related to Bacillus anthracis and shares many biological properties. But it is not a disease causing organism, and there are many, many different types found in the environment. It would not be surprise to me to find a novel B. subtilis on my computer keyboard. The government investigators thought that perhaps this contaminant could be used to trace back the spore preps to a particular laboratory. If the contaminant was a common laboratory strain of B. subtilis, this might have been possible. In the end, this apparently proved impossible because this contaminant was different from any known lab strains. Likewise, Dugway Proving Grounds labs were intensely investigated, and I would assume that any Bacillus strains at that facility would have been investigated. Again, no lab strains matched the contaminant using DNA analysis.

Three questions from Marcia Ann Chambers, Topeka, Indiana

Q1: The mailed spores were compared to ancestral Ames (genotype62) and determined to be identical to it. In what lab and under what circumstances was the ancestral Ames stored?

A: The ancestral Ames culture was stored at USAMRIID until it was discovered during the Amerithrax investigation. It is the oldest known archival Ames culture discovered in the investigation and dates from early 1981 (see: Ravel et al. 2009 J. Bacteriology 191:445-6.).

Q2: When testing other sources to compare to the mailed spores, did you look for colony morphology differences?

A: The morphs themselves were useful for identifying minor genetic differences in the letter spores, but it would have been very tedious and unreliable to depend upon visual analysis of colony morphology across the entire repository or across all the evidence. In addition, the colony morphological differences can be subtle and subjective. (A lot of credit should be extended to the skilled microbiologists who originally spotted the morphs.) So, the final repository analysis was of the genetic differences controlling the morphological differences. These were genetic tests (PCR) developed after the full genomes of each morph were determined by TIGR [The Institute for Genomic Research]. These tests are rapid,
sensitive, and highly reproducible. The entire process was done in a blinded fashion where the labs used anonymous samples.

Q3: If Iowa State University destroyed its entire collection of anthrax, how can it be eliminated as a source for flask RMR-1029?

A: It is regrettable that ISU destroyed their archival B. anthracis isolates (see my commentary above), as this could have exonerated them. Our DNA analyses would have quickly determined whether they even had the Ames strain in their collection. The reason they were under such scrutiny was due to the misnaming of the Ames strain (see my discussion on this topic above).

Commentary: This is an opinion, but given the mailing location in New Jersey, it is unlikely that an ISU employee could have driven that far to mail the letters without being detected. It is also unlikely that ISU even had the Ames strain, let alone RMR1029. They did not have a vaccine development program, and there were no notable anthrax research teams there at that time. After all the unwarranted media attention, I’m guessing that the government investigated activities at ISU with great diligence and ruled out potential suspects.

NOTE: The entire post from Dr. Keim is contained in the comment below, submitted by DXer and reproduced below.

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* al-Qaeda was seeking anthrax; in Ames, Iowa, anthrax samples were destroyed; is there a connection? text of the new YouTube video

Posted by DXer on July 5, 2009

why the FBI failed to solve the 2001 anthrax caseCASE CLOSED

* buy CASE CLOSED at amazon

* VIDEO – introducing CASE CLOSED

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bin-laden-2al-Qaeda was seeking anthrax; in Ames, Iowa, anthrax samples were destroyed; is there a connection?

Before the anthrax attacks, Al-Qaeda was looking for anthrax. Immediately after the anthrax attacks, in Ames Iowa, samples of anthrax perhaps related to the attack anthrax were destroyed. Is there a connection between those two events? Lew Weinstein, author of CASE CLOSED, a fictional account which explains why the FBI failed to solve the anthrax case, maintains a blog which has become a vibrant form for discussion of the actual anthrax case.

Here is the text of the video posted on YouTube …

Hi. My name is Lew Weinstein. I’m the author of a novel called CASE CLOSED, which presents a fictional scenario to explain why the FBI failed to solve the 2001 anthrax case. To promote my novel, I started a blog, and the CASE CLOSED blog has become a host for vibrant discussion and argument over the anthrax attacks and the FBI’s subsequent investigation.

This video suggests a possible connection between two major topics that have been discussed on our blog in the past week or so.

  • in 1999 al-Qaeda was looking for anthrax spores and the means to weaponize them.
  • in 2001, in Ames Iowa, just days after the first anthrax victim died, hundreds of samples of anthrax were suddenly destroyed.
  • is there a connection between those two events?

Jobi Warrick, in an article in the Washington Post, wrote of a man name Abdur Rauf, an al-Qaeda operative who reported to the #2 al-Qaeda Commander, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

  • In December 2001, a set of documents was found by coalition soldiers in Afghanistan. Highly redacted portions of these documents were provided by the DIA – Defense Intelligence Agency, were recently published on the CASE CLOSED blog.
  • The documents provide evidence of Abdur Rauf’s mission and his possible success. “I have successfully achieved the targets,” Rauf chillingly stated in a letter to al-Zawahiri.

These documents are tantalizing … but there’s much more to be revealed … many questions to be answered.

Now let’s switch our attention to Ames Iowa.

  • In October 2001, literally days after the death of the first anthrax victim, a large number of anthrax samplesUSDA Lab Allegationswere destroyed in Ames Iowa.
  • Some of these samples belonged to Iowa State University
  • others, according to a report in Coen and Nadler’s recently published Dead Silence, belonged to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which operated labs near the university and interacted frequently with university scientists and students.
  • The destroyed anthrax probably included samples of what has become known as Ames strain RMR-1029 which was the very strain the FBI says was used in the anthrax attack letters.

The destruction of anthrax in Ames Iowa is unique

  • there are no other known instances of post-attack destruction of anthrax samples in any other research lab in the U.S.
  • The people who directed the Ames Iowa autoclave destruction were presumably scientists who presumably understood the forensic value of the DNA in those samples for tracing of the origin of the anthrax used in the attack letters.
  • the FBI was aware of the intended Ames destruction and did not object
  • although claims that the FBI actually ordered the destruction have not been confirmed.

Is there a connection between Abdur Rauf and Ames Iowa? Well … there could be.

  • Suppose one of the locations redacted in the Abdur Rauf materials turns out to be Iowa State University or theUSDA lab strip mall storage nearby USDA labs in Ames Iowa.
  • Suppose … in the midst of the nationwide panic after the anthrax attacks, scientists in Ames Iowa realized that Abdur Rauf had visited their labs. Suppose these scientists knew or suspected … or at least feared that anthrax spores were received or stolen by Rauf during the course of such a visit.
  • Suppose … the inventory records in Ames Iowa were so poor it was impossible to tell if any lethal anthrax had gone missing.
  • and finally … suppose the physical and personnel security at the Ames lab locations, including the strip mall location — yes, the leased strip mall storefront location — used as a laboratory by the USDA, suppose security was so inadequate that transfer or theft of anthrax spores would not have been difficult to accomplish.
  • In the absence of full disclosure of where Abdul Rauf went and why the Ames anthrax was destroyed, all of the above suppositions must be considered open questions.

In fact, despite the FBI’s claim that Dr. Bruce Ivins was the sole perpetrator of the anthrax attacks, the CASE is definitely not CLOSED.

These open questions, and many more, are what prompted me to write my novel CASE CLOSED which presents one fictional scenario to explain why the FBI failed to solve the anthrax case.

And it’s why the participants of the CASE CLOSED blog are continuing their efforts to extract and publish information relevant to the 2001 anthrax attacks.

You’re welcome to join us.

  • Just do a simple three word web search — case … closed … Weinstein — and click on any of the blog articles you will find.
  • watch … or participate … as we seek to learn the truth about America’s unsolved case of mass murder by anthrax
  • Welcome to our blog.

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to see the video click >>>

* VIDEO – Al-Qaeda seeks anthrax; Ames Iowa destroys it

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